What is TRUE sacrifice?

7 05 2011

Last time I said that sacrifice and generosity are Biblical values that are vastly superior to, and more beautiful than, the value of selflessness.  Let’s take a closer look at them now.

What is generosity?


Generosity is not the equivalent of selflessness; it is its reverse!  The very word, “self-less” implies a focus on having “less” of the self.  Selflessness values self-deprivation for its own sake; generosity values the blessing of others for its own sake.  Selflessness says that to take away from the self is good, even if it benefits no one.  Generosity says that abundance for all is good, even if it takes away from no one.  The goal of selflessness is to subtract; the goal of generosity is to add.  The goal of selflessness is to take (from the self); the goal of generosity is to give (to all).

What is sacrifice?

Found this picture online, demonstrating the modernized definition of "sacrifice". Not to devalue the gift that soldiers give, but "sacrifice" for your country does not fit the Biblical definition of sacrifice - because a sacrifice is something you make to God, not to a country.

At first glance, the word, “sacrifice” is almost identical to the word “selfless”.  One dictionary definition says that sacrifice is, “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy; as in  ‘we must all be prepared to make sacrifices.’”  This definition makes the giving up of something the focus, and sounds similar to our modern understanding of “selflessness”.

However, this meaning of the English word “sacrifice” is a relatively modern development.  The older meaning of the word “sacrifice” meant simply, “sacred rites”.  (That’s why “sacrifice” and “sacred” sound so similar.)  The modern sense of sacrifice as, “something given up for the sake of another” developed in the late 1500’s.

This is what Biblical sacrifice looks like.

So when the Bible talks about Old Testament priests making sacrifices, it is telling you that they were performing “sacred rites”.  Another word sometimes used instead of “sacrifices” is “offerings.”  An Old Testament sacrifice is a gift offered to God; not simply something taken away from the self.  And when the New Testament talks about sacrifice, it always does so in direct reference to this Old Testament system.  New Testament writers were saying, “just as the priests were giving gifts to God, so you are called to give your life to God, in everything that you do, every day.

But we moderns have lost touch with these meanings!  We have a new meaning of the word “sacrifice” that deletes God from the picture altogether.  For example, when you want McDonald’s for lunch but your friends want Wendy’s, you say, “Ok, I’ll make the sacrifice and eat at Wendy’s.”  When we use the word in this way, we’re not thinking of any kind of “sacred rite” or any gift offered to God.  We’re just talking about letting go of our own desires.  Even atheists can use the word in this way!  (In fact, that very phrase – “let go of your desires” – is something Buddhism (a non-theistic religion) teaches.)

And this is what Biblical sacrifice looks like.

Properly understood, an atheist is incapable of “sacrifice” – not because atheists can’t be nice people, but because the original (and Biblical) definition of the word refers only to “sacred rites”, and gifts made to God!

More on this new understanding of “sacrifice” next time…

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4 responses

7 05 2011
The Prodigal Shah

we just taught on Romans 12:1-2 at h2o last week, and it is such a beautiful picture of living sacrifices. you are so right that the word has gotten a hollow almost negative meaning these days…with the emphasis on being the “giving up”, rather than the sacred, positive truth of it being about a gift or offering to God. Passages such as Hebrews 13:!5-16 present such a cool picture of this.

thanks for talking about this.

4 06 2011

I’m still not entirely what you find wrong about the “old definition” of sacrifice. I’m on board with what you’re saying with the Wendy’s/McDonalds example, but I still don’t see how a central component of a sacrifice or offering isn’t the giving of something valuable in order to come into greater union with God. There were plenty “sacred rites” in the Old Testament, such as observing the Sabbath and honoring your father and mother, that, as far as I know, were never called “sacrifices”, and this is not because they aren’t sacred, but rather because nothing is obviously being “given up” to God. So as far as I can tell, a “sacrifice” is necessarily about “giving up”, not just about doing something sacred. Let me know your thoughts on this!

6 06 2011
Tim Courtois

You’re right that a sacrifice does involve the “giving up” of something; I think the difference is a matter of focus: The focus of true sacrifice is on the “to”, not on the “from”.

It’s like this: If I give a friend a present for his birthday, but I make it all about how much I gave up to give him the present rather than about my friend’s pleasure and joy, then I really haven’t given him a gift at all; I’ve just created a stage for my narcissism.

I think a lot of what we call “sacrifice” is like that: “I’m doing something I would prefer not to do, so that must mean I’m honoring God, right?”.

Does that make sense?

10 07 2011
Sacrifice | Game Glist

[…] Sacrifice timcourtois.wordpress.com […]

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